“Something is rotten in the state of Queensland”

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Friday, 31 October 2008

Queensland has had a long history of police killings of Aborigines. In 1848, the Queensland Government set up a Native Police Force under the control of white officers specifically to “disperse” Aborigines considered to be standing in the way of white expansion on the frontier (Rowley, The Destruction Of Aboriginal Society, 1972).

“Disperse” was the euphemism employed to describe riding up to family groups and shooting them. Little regard was shown by many settlers for the sanctity of Aboriginal life. Frederick Walker, former commandant of the Native Police Force on July 10, 1861 wrote to the Colonial Secretary of Queensland about the actions of the Native Police Force in the aftermath of the Hornet Bank murders saying:

At the Juandah massacre, the Blacks who had been proven to the satisfaction of five magistrates to be innocent of any participation in crime, were subsequently murdered, some in the verandah, some in the kitchen of a magistrate who in vain remonstrated. Two blacks who had by some whim been spared were then made to bury the victims, and one ruffian said to the other, “What shall we do with the sextons?” The answer was “shoot them”. One was accordingly shot. Why the other was spared, I know not. Possibly the supply of cartridges was running short (Skinner, Police of the Pastoral Frontier, p. 370, 1975).

Aboriginal resistance to absolute police control has never been tolerated in Queensland. Professor Henry Reynolds provides considerable evidence of this history in The Other Side of the Frontier, This Whispering in our Hearts and Why Weren’t We Told. Historian Dr Ros Kidd in The Way We Civilise details the way police “protectors” and Department of Native Affairs officers systematically defrauded their Aboriginal charges of millions of pounds by manipulating the Welfare Benefit Trust Accounts.

When I worked with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in South Brisbane, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, I witnessed drunken police arresting Aborigines for drunkenness. Often the police were drunker than the people they arrested. One afternoon I saw two police officers pickup a frail, semiconscious, drunken Aboriginal woman and throw her into the paddy wagon from over a metre away from the rear of the vehicle. She hit the front wall of the van with a sickening thud. I lodged a formal complaint with the police the next day only to be assured, some weeks later in a letter, that the arrest had been carried out in line with normal police practices.

While lecturing at Darwin Community College in the early 1980s I became personally involved with the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody. I was secretary of the Northern Territory Council for Civil Liberties and we were told that an Aboriginal prisoner, who had died in the closed mental health ward of Darwin Hospital, had, just prior to his death, been assaulted by prison guards.

I sat through the entire inquest, at the end of which the senior prison guard on duty at the time of the death was charged with manslaughter by the Coroner. The charges were subsequently dropped by the crown law prosecutor and I wrote a play from the transcripts called simply The Death of Phillip Robertson. The play was written in an attempt to attract public attention to the issue of Indigenous deaths in custody.

I was in Perth in 1983 when a young Aboriginal man, John Pat, was assaulted at the Roebourne watch house by five police offers and he subsequently died in custody. I worked with the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service in Perth to get public attention focused on this case. Following the acquittal of all the police involved in the death of John Pat, the Hawke Government established a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

It started work in October 1987 and issued its final report in November 1990. It investigated 99 deaths of Indigenous people in custody who died between January 1, 1980 and May 31, 1989. The Royal Commission made 339 recommendations designed to divert Aboriginal people from custody, address alcohol and street offence problems, enhance Indigenous self determination and improve Aboriginal/police relations.

There were some attempts made to implement many of the Commission’s recommendations. But 18 years later there are now more Indigenous prisoners in custody than in 1990, Aboriginal/police relations in many parts of Queensland have not improved, alcohol and street offences are still a major reason for Indigenous arrest and Australia has yet to sign the United Nations Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or do much else to promote self-determination for the first people of this nation.

Two books have already been written about the events surrounding the death of Mulrunji, one by ABC journalist, Jeff Waters, entitled Gone for a Song and the other The Tall Man by the Walkley Award winning journalist, Chloe Hooper.

There is a consensus that Mulrunji was intoxicated and wandering along the street on Palm Island when he witnessed the arrest of Patrick Bramwell being conducted by an Aboriginal police liaison officer. Mulrunji suggested to the liaison officer that he should not be betraying his own people, this angered Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley who then arrested Mulrunji and drove him and Bramwell to the watch house.

In the yard there was an altercation between Mulrunji and Hurley and Hurley claims he fell on the step at the entrance to the cells. The other prisoner, Patrick Bramwell who was in the watch house at the time gave evidence that Hurley seriously assaulted Mulrunji. An hour later Mulrunji was dead – his spleen ruptured, four ribs broken and his liver split almost into two parts.

Seven days later, following a community meeting at which the crowd was given details of the first autopsy, unrest broke out and there was a disturbance. The police station, court house and some police accommodation was burnt down. Heavily armed riot squads were subsequently flown to Palm Island and suppressed, at gun point, the population including grandmothers and children. The police did not wear any identifying insignia.

After an aborted inquest, a second inquest was conducted by Deputy State Coroner Christine Clements: she found that the arrest of Mulrunji was not an appropriate exercise of police discretion; she did not believe that Hurley’s account of events to be truthful; she believed that Hurley had struck Mulrunji while he was still on the floor; and went on to say “I conclude that these actions of Senior sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries”.

Coroner Clements referred the case to Director of Public Prosecutions, who declined to prosecute, but after a public outcry and further judicial inquires Senior Sergeant Hurley was sent to trial in Townsville. On June 20, 2007 he was acquitted by the all white jury: a fairly likely result for a man whose actions had been investigated by his mates. And by then Patrick Bramwell was dead, having been found hanging in a tree some six months earlier.

On October 24, 2008, Palm Islander, Lex Wooton, was found by an all white jury in Brisbane guilty of “riot with destruction”: he was remanded in custody in Townsville to be sentenced in November. The maximum penalty he faces is life in prison.

Not satisfied with gaining the conviction of another Palm Islander who opposed police, the Police Union demanded that the Parliamentary Speaker, Mike Reynolds, whose electorate is in Townsville, apologise to the police for supporting “the rioters”. Reynolds in return accused the Union of “political thuggery” and of “continuing a vendetta against him” (ABC News 2008).

There is a long trail of similarities from the murders of the Arrernte by Constable Willshire in Central Australia in the 19th century (SBS TV) to current police killings and their subsequent cover-ups. But there is little to match the arrogance of the present Queensland police service. Three days after Lex Wooton was remanded in custody, the Police Commissioner announced that 22 police would receive bravery medals for their actions on Palm Island following the killing of Mulrunji.

In Queensland, for as long as Lex Wooton is in jail and Inspector Chris Hurley walks free, and the Queensland Police Union continues to intimidate politicians, there are serious problems for the justice system. There is a need for a further Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody paying particular attention to:
  • the deaths of Mulrunji on Palm Island and Daniel Yock in South Brisbane;
  • the behaviour of the riot squad on Palm Island following the burning down of the police station;
  • a thorough investigation of the intimidation of witnesses who give evidence not appreciated by police; and
  • an investigation of the intimidation of politicians and others by members of the police union.

I don’t know how this will be achieved, short of some decent police officers becoming whistle blowers. However, if the Royal Commissioners were able to investigate the widespread perjuring conducted by police in Queensland, then they might finally get to understand the underlying reasons for the high number of deaths in custody.